Home News Speeches The FBI and the Media: A Century of Service to the American People
  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • National Press Club
  • Washington, D.C.
  • May 16, 2008

Good afternoon. It’s good to be here with you today.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once said, “Wooing the press is an exercise roughly akin to picnicking with a tiger. You might enjoy the meal, but the tiger always eats last.” I did indeed enjoy the meal, but I am struck with the notion that I am now at the podium and many of you still look quite hungry.

Those of you who have heard me speak before know that I often talk about our top priorities in the FBI, or about a particular program, such as terrorism or cyber crime. Today, I want to take a different tack.

This summer, the FBI will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Coincidentally, the National Press Club also celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. With that backdrop, I thought it appropriate to talk about what the FBI and the press have in common, which is a mission to serve the public good.

The Newseum opened here in Washington just a few weeks ago. The museum’s façade features the words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Seeing these words displayed so prominently on Pennsylvania Avenue reminds us of their profound impact on our history and our heritage.

The Founding Fathers recognized the need for free speech and freedom of the press. They sought to strike a balance between liberty and security.

Thomas Jefferson—one of the principal drafters of the First Amendment—was a fierce protector of a free press, although he often found himself the target of what he thought was biased and inaccurate reporting. Jefferson believed that a free press was not a privilege, but a necessity in a democratic society.

Yet he understood, as we do, that with freedom of the press comes an inherent tension between government and the media. Those of us in government appreciate that tension as one of the positive aspects of an open and free society, though I sometimes have to remind myself of that when I pick up the newspaper in the morning and read some of your stories about the FBI.

In the early days, J. Edgar Hoover knew that the FBI would need the support of the American people to be successful. Hoover certainly realized the press would be an important factor in that equation and he carefully cultivated that relationship.

One could argue that the media played a large role in crafting the FBI’s public image in those days. Indeed, one of our best and longest-running publicity programs—the Top 10 Most Wanted list—was the creation of one of your own.

In 1949, reporter James Donovan asked the FBI to identify the “toughest guys” we were investigating at the time. We provided him with photos of 10 dangerous fugitives, which he then published on the front page of The Washington Daily News.

The so-called “Top 10” list was wildly popular, and several fugitives were captured as a result. The next year, the FBI formalized its Top 10 program, which, since 1950, has led to the capture of more than 450 of our nation’s most dangerous criminals.

Members of the press have also played roles in specific investigations. For example, in 1937, famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell brokered the surrender of notorious gangster Louis Lepke to Hoover himself.

Times have changed, because so far, as Director, those are not the kind of calls I am getting from reporters.

In recent years, globalization and technology have changed the rules of the game for all of us. Today, we are part of a never-ending news cycle—one that spans the globe. When a story is filed, that one story, posted on the Internet, may be picked up around the world.

Unfortunately, criminals and terrorists are using that same technology to their advantage. Criminals no longer need to be in the same room, or even the same country, to commit large-scale crimes, from computer intrusions and child pornography to financial fraud.

Terrorists no longer need training camps; they need only have a laptop and Internet access to learn how to make a bomb, or how to mix industrial chemicals into weapons of mass destruction.

With all this technology, we face an overwhelming amount of information, but sometimes real knowledge is scarce. We both sift through vast and varied information to discover that which is of value. We both seek out the truth, wherever it may lead.

Like globalization and technology, the terrorist attacks on America impacted the way we view our respective jobs. September 11th taught us that today, the stakes may be much higher, the danger that much greater.

The old calculus was not a question of if, but when. The contemporary calculus is not a question of when, but how, and of how much damage.

But we in the FBI must keep in mind our mission. And yet at the same time, we must keep in mind the words of the First Amendment and the civil liberties granted to each and every American.

We in the FBI are sworn to protect liberty and ensure security. We must ask ourselves many times a day: If a terrorism lead points us to an individual and we collect information on that person, do we risk violating their privacy? And if we do not pursue that lead, are we missing an important piece of information that might save lives?

Among FBI employees, there are none who can take these questions lightly. We must constantly ask ourselves: what are the capabilities we have in a given case and what are the laws that govern them?

In the end, if we in the FBI safeguard our civil liberties but leave our country vulnerable to terrorist attack, we have lost. If we protect America from terrorism but sacrifice our civil liberties, we have also lost. Every day, the men and women of the Bureau must strike this balance.

We recognize that if we are to be successful as a global intelligence and law enforcement agency, we must be as transparent as possible. We welcome scrutiny from Congress, the American public, and the press. Yes, this scrutiny is sometimes painful. But in the long run it does make us better, because we understand that our ability to protect the American people depends in large part on the people’s trust in the FBI.

An upcoming exhibit at the Newseum—called “G-Men and Journalists”—depicts some of the stories borne out of some fairly complex decisions made not only by the FBI, but also by the press in crisis situations. In each of these stories, the arbiter was the same: how we both can effectively serve the public interest.

For example, in the Unabomber case, we had followed thousands of leads around the world, but could not identify the elusive bomber. When he demanded that The Washington Post and The New York Times print his rambling manifesto, neither newspaper was comfortable doing so. Both the FBI and the editors ultimately realized, however, that printing the lengthy text might save a life and it might yield clues. Printing the manifesto was not an easy decision, yet it quickly led to the identification and capture of Ted Kaczynski.

In yet another example, when snipers John Mohammed and Lee Boyd Malvo held the Washington area hostage for more than three weeks in 2002, it was a member of the public who pinpointed the whereabouts of the two men, when he heard a newscast that publicized a police bulletin.

Today, when it comes to mortgage fraud, Internet fraud, and child predators who roam the darkest corners of cyber space, it is the attention the press devotes to those cases that prevents thousands of others from falling victim. These same stories deter other wrongdoers around the world.

And yes, the news stories you have published about those purported e-mails from me—claiming that I am holding your million dollar prize in Nigeria—hopefully stopped some gullible people from losing a great deal of money.

The FBI has a responsibility to serve the public. Yet we recognize the unique ability of the media to cast a wider net within the public. We can send agents out to visit a thousand homes to find a witness. The press can visit a million homes in an instant.

We frequently need your assistance in seeking information from the public. We post Amber Alerts when children go missing. And we are using digital billboards across the country to publicize fugitives and missing persons.

We have been working with John Walsh and “ America ’s Most Wanted” to track down fugitives since 1988. To date, those efforts have resulted in the arrest of 1,000 fugitives, 16 of whom were included on the FBI’s Top 10 list.

Nearly three years ago, Oprah Winfrey approached us for information on the most dangerous child predators. She featured 14 such predators on her television show, and offered a reward for every arrest.

Citizen tips led to the capture of six predators, for which Ms. Winfrey paid a substantial reward out of her own pocket. For her efforts, we recently presented her with an award for exceptional community service.

Over the past 100 years, we have both grown. Our responsibilities have become more complex. But by and large, we understand one another, and we recognize the vital role each of us plays.

Where will the FBI and the press be 100 years from now? It is impossible to predict the challenges we each will face.

The landscape in which we both operate will likely continue to change. The technology we both use will most certainly change. And the threats we face, as citizens, will become more diverse and dangerous. But what will not change is our common denominator, which is that we both serve the same public.

Freedom of speech is a hallmark of democracy. And we in the FBI have great respect for a free and fair press.

Mark Twain once said, “There are two forces that can carry light to all corners of the globe, and only two: the sun in the heavens, and the Associated Press down here.”

We understand that it is your mission to carry light to all corners of the globe…to inform the American people about the issues that impact their daily lives. We also believe that the more informed the American public is about what the FBI does, the stronger their support for our mission will be.

Thank you for having me here today. Happy anniversary to the National Press Club. May you enjoy another century of success.

And now, I would be happy to take your questions.

 
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